Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Murder of Bhutto and "Charlie Wilson's War" by Norman Markowitz

I had written an angry satirical article about the new film Charlie Wilson's War, which I have not seen yet, except for extensive excerpts on a History Channel documentary, which purported to be the "real" story of the late Charlie Wilson, and had him chortling "I love it" as the rightwing Muslim guerrillas whom he and the Reagan administration massively funded through Pakistan and hailed as "freedom fighters" were about to triumph over the "evil Soviet empire."

I was advised to keep my review on tap until I had seen the film, which is reasonable advice, even though I doubt that my original title, Springtime for Charlie Wilson: From the People who Gave You the World Trade Center, will change that much, since the film appears to be a send-up of Charlie and his fun loving good ole boy and good ole girl buddies hustling politicians and funny CIA men into "winning the cold war in Afghanistan( a few of the reviews do mention that the film does suggest that Charlie's "freedom fighters" later became something of a problem as terrorists but that this doesn't really change the great fun of the film, it clever satire and cool put downs of everything and everyone.

/ /

Benazir Bhutto was murdered in Pakistan yesterday and the murder, as I see it, has a direct relationship to the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the subject of "Charlie Wilson's War," which was no comedy.

Afghanistan's history from the late 1970s to the present is very complicated. The country itself was one of the poorest in the world, divided along ethnic "tribal lines" and long a battleground among great powers (in the nineteenth century the British and Czarist Russian Empires).

Afghanistan bordered the Soviet Union and ethnic groups who also were part of the Soviet Union were minority populations in Afghanistan. The Soviets had helped to educate a significant number of Afghanis and an influential Communist party existed in the city of Kabul. Feudal and pre feudal nomadic elites were predominant in much of the country and the Muslim religion was the primary unifying force.

Afghani Communists in effect took power in Kabul in 1978, faced both with threats from the newly established brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan, and also hoping to advance a social revolution, bringing mass education, land reform, and other vital social reforms to the people. The Pakistani military dictator, General Zia, had public ally executed Muhammad Ali Bhutto, the civilian Prime Minister whom he overthrew (father of Benizar Bhutto). Zia wasn't the first Pakistani military dictator but he was the worst. His regime turned more and more to rightist clerical elements as a base of support and also worked with Saudis to establish rightwing religious primary schools in a country where large sections of the population, including a large majority of the female population, were totally illiterate

Afghani Communists tragically were unable to achieve the unity that is a prerequisite for all Communist parties everywhere—they were divided into rival factions, which fought each other fiercely over policy. Along with important gains, there were disastrous errors in seeking to advance the revolution into the countryside, great ineptitude in the land reform policy among cadre with a limited understanding of agriculture and an aggressive self –defeating anti-clericalism in response to the clerical opposition to the revolution.

With the Pakistani military dictatorship under General Zia aiding right-wing Muslin guerrillas, National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in effect defeated Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and gained President Jimmy Carter's support to use the CIA to provide aid to the guerrillas. Brzezinski saw this aid as creating an "Afghan trap" for the Soviets, manipulating them into a military intervention which, he hoped, would be their "Vietnam."

The Soviets did intervene at the end of 1979 to both save the Kabul government, an ally, and advance a social revolution against fiercely reactionary clerically based forces. For the Soviets, the intervention was both a protection of their own borders and also a re-assertion of "proletarian internationalism" aid to be people seeking to make a social revolution against the forces of internal reaction and foreign imperialism.

CIA aid to the Afghan "freedom fighters was picking up under the Reagan administration, which used the advertising term "Evil Empire," before the real Charlie Wilson got into the act, although Charlie did play the role of a political fixer, using his position on the House Intelligence Committee to get more and more money and military aid to the "freedom fighters" while he ran around Afghanistan for many colorful photo ops. Wilson liked to take credit for getting the "freedom fighters" aka terrorists the hand held Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet aircraft (which, by the way were and still may be around in Taliban hands) as did Brezinski before the September 11 attacks but in reality the Reagan administration and the CIA deserve the lion's share of the "credit" for the "victory" in Afghanistan that led to both Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the present "war against terrorism."

There were large numbers of refugees created by the Afghan war and great atrocities, as there virtually are in all modern wars. In the U.S. and capitalist media, the Soviets were blamed for these atrocities and large sections of the Euro-American left pretty much went along with the view that this was a battle between David and Goliath in which the social issues were unimportant compared to the Soviet "bad guys and the Afghan
"anti-imperialist" good guys.

Indian media particularly along with other non Soviet sources emphasized the fanaticism and crimes committed by the guerillas, the atrocities that they committed against Soviet military personnel, their families, and those Afghani people whom they saw as collaborators—women seeking to go to schools that the Communist government had established, people seeking to free themselves from the domination of CIA supported gunmen who might beat them brutally if their beards weren't long enough.

While the real Charlie Wilson was running around shucking and jiving with U.S. Congressmen, General Zia, and Afghan "mujahedeen," the CIA was recruiting tens of thousands of foreign fighters from Muslim countries and training them in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas to attack Afghanistan. Money for this war was not only raised from the U.S. appropriations but from Heroin traffic that led Pakistan in the 1990s to have the highest per capita number of Heroin addicts in the world. Benizar Bhutto became Prime Minister briefly after General Zia's death and the restoration of civilian rule. She returned as Prime Minister in the mid 1990s, only to be overthrown by the present military dictator, General Musharaff. The people of Pakistan less directly than the people of Afghanistan but more so than any other people, suffered from the counter-revolutionary guerrilla war that Reagan and Zia carried forward against Afghanistan.

As Mikhail Gorbachev began a policy of withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Al Qaeda or the Base was founded in 1988 under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, leader of the Saudi Arabian contingent of fighters, scion of one of the wealthiest capitalist families in the region, and both fund-raiser and major logistical man for the guerrillas, much admired at the time by the CIA with whom he had worked for many years.

The Communist led government in Kabul was eventually destroyed. In Afghanistan, a warlord terror regime was followed by the ultra-right clerical Taliban regime, whose attempts to terrorize its own people into accepting universal female illiteracy, the primacy of a literalist interpretation of religious law and misery and poverty in this life as a necessity for the next shocked the people throughout the world.

With the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden, who regardless of his CIA friends, had long seen the U.S. and the "West" as both a sink of sin and a legion of Christian Crusaders and Jewish Zionists seeking to conquer Islam, substituted the U.S. for the Soviet Union as his main enemy, and, setting himself up in Afghanistan with the wholehearted support of the Taliban government that he and the CIA had largely created, began to launch the attacks that led eventually to the destruction of the World Trade Center.

By then, the CIA was much more interested in covering up its long term relationship with bin Laden than really doing much about him, its Pakistani intelligence "allies" were heavily compromised and infiltrated with Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters, and bin Laden family money was around so that U.S, authorities weren't that keen on investigating the activities of the bin Laden black sheep Osama.

Today, Al Qaeda and Taliban forces attack the U.S. backed government in Afghanistan from the base areas that the CIA and the Pakistani ISI used to attack the Soviet supported Communist government over twenty years ago, Benizar Bhutto, the former Prime Minister, has been murdered under the regime of the present military dictator, who imprisoned and held her husband in jail for years without formal charges, along with many other opponents of the dictatorship, just as her father was in effect murdered by the previous military dictator. And of course, Pakistan does have "weapons of mass destruction," nuclear weapons which it has developed as part of its ongoing conflict with India

I said at the beginning that I wasn't going to write a review of "Charlie Wilson's War" until I see the film, but I think this final comment on its advertising is merited. In the commercials for the film on television, a narrator says with a straight face without Charlie Wilson "history would have been sadly different." Different perhaps, but unless one is a sadist a masochist, or a reactionary "internationalist" who loves war and destruction for the hell of it, whether it is the destruction of the World Trade Center or the invasion of Iraq, not happily, not sadly, different.

Norman Markowitz


Anonymous said...

Have you seen the in-depth review of this film posted this week on the History News Network?

It is sad to think that this is how most Americans will be educated about the Cold War.

Al Sargis said...

Aside from its political distortions--both acts of omission and commision--I think the film is worthwhile viewing by leftists. It shows the complimentary relations between bourgeois liberals and conservatives in congress, and how they both relate to the CIA and ruling class persons with ties to Zia. Connections the U.S. sets up between an Israeli arms dealer and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. government arms suppliers are also shown. It further portrays the ways in which some people in congress manipulate others in order to get what they want. A "virtuous circle" among all the political forces in the film amply demonstrates how they are united by unquestioned anti-Communism, much as they are today by "Terrorism." Of course, the film simplifies the book and one of the real-life leading characters--Michael Vickers--is small potatoes in the film. In reality he was the major Reagan orchestrator of the whole affair. Today Vickers is a leading Deputy Secretary of Defense--confirmed in July 2007 by the Democratic congress--whose role, according to the Washington Post, is to perform a similar task in U.S.
imperialism's Long War.

normanmarkowitz said...

A belated response to Al's very sophisticated comments. The film is not made for the left, which can read between the lines and perhaps learn something(better to read serious studies of what happened in Afghanistan from an anti-imperialist perspective. It is a "comedy" which leads most viewers to enjoy and vicariously identify with Charlie(from everything that I know) and thus the whole project of U.S. imperialism. Historical films rarely present factually careful presentations, and that is not really the point of such films. The point is whether they portray the relevant social relations. A truly great historical film, Gandhi, which was hardly revolutionary, portrayed the key social relations brilliantly in my opinion, even though it can be challenged for its selection of materials.
I don't know if merely showing the bipartisan nature of imperialist policy really captures what was happening in Afghanistan adequately, or the extent of Reagan's cold war intensification, the near tripling of the military budget and the ideological "crusade" to revive the worst of the high cold war period most associated with John Foster Dulles. In any case, I have no quarrel with anyone on the left seeing the film, even though I have no desire to put any money into its producers hands